Has the June gap come early?

june gap

After spring has flowered and before summer has quite arrived, there is a lull in foliage in the UK and Ireland which is called ‘the June gap’. As nature takes a breath before the summer rush, there are some perennial plants in gardens that help to bridge the gap but usually not enough to satisfy all pollinators.

The June gap is significant in beekeeping because by this time most colonies have built up their numbers and have many more bees to feed, or they have been split after swarming and may be small, weak and low on stores. It is another date in the beekeeping calendar when hives might, suddenly and unexpectedly, need feeding. This year I wondered if the June gap had come early after finding our colonies low on stores at the end of May.

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen's place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen’s place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

With this in mind, I left work on Wednesday night after the Queen’s parade and went to the apiary to feed the bees. All the hives have feeders under the roofs except for the hive split from Chamomile’s colony, which, not ideally for the time of year, has a bag of fondant above the crownboard. We ran out of feeders after the sudden increase in hives.

I lifted off each roof to find the feeders drained dry of syrup and bee proboscis eagerly poking under the rims to lick up the last drops. I refilled all the feeders and closed up, leaving behind happier bees.

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

So today when John drove me to the apiary, I was again heavily laden with litres of syrup and an umbrella. The forecast was dark and stormy, and though the storm had passed early this morning, the air was close and thundery. “Go and stroke all your bees,” John said, “Though it may take some time.”

A question asked by a beginner the weekend before had popped into my head as I walked towards the hives, “Isn’t it bad to feed the bees? I read that sugar is not very good for them.” Honey is better for honeybees, of course. But isn’t it also bad for the bees to starve? It’s an inconvenient truth at certain times of the year that hived bees might need feeding or they will starve and probably die.

If the bees don’t want the sugar, then they won’t take it. Experience with stronger hives, or when there is plenty of forage about, has taught me that bees wilfully ignore syrup in the roof when they don’t need it, and this often tells the beekeeper to stop feeding.

I always wonder when we are feeding our bees how other pollinators are surviving. The bees in London have beautiful gardens to visit and I have seen many big fat bumblebees foraging together.

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A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that bumblebees prefer safety in numbers and feed on flowers where other bees are feeding safely. You can read about it in PhysOrg ‘Safe(bee) in numbers‘.

Emily and I currently have five hives at Perivale apiary and we hope soon to combine some colonies and perhaps sell one, which will leave us with fewer, bigger and stronger hives.

Today’s inclement weather made it unlikely that we would be deeply inspecting the hives. This didn’t matter, however, as Pat had advised to give the new queens two to three weeks to lay, then decide which queens were best before uniting colonies.

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The sun came out long enough for us to inspect Myrtle’s hive, which is full of bees and has brood on eight to nine frames. The stores are still lower than we would like, so we decided to feed this colony another week before putting on a super.

We saw Myrtle and tried to cage her in case we needed her. However, she clearly didn’t feel like being caged and escaped twice. Myrtle’s brood pattern is patchy which might mean she is getting old. She is almost two and a half. The bees could supersede her in the autumn, which is how Myrtle herself took over the hive from her mother.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Next we checked Chili’s hive and didn’t spot the queen, but the bees were looking purposeful and Emily saw some eggs, so she is in there.

The bees were now getting fractious because of the heavy air and Alan had arrived at the apiary, so we took a break for a bee chat before inspecting the remaining three hives.

Chamomile’s bees were, as Alan said, not happy to perform. Emily spotted the queen, so we quickly closed up and fed them.

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Finally, our two swarmed hives. Things were not looking good here and the bees were not happy. In one hive there was no sign of the queen spotted last week and no brood. In the other we spotted a small, probably virgin, queen but again no brood. We’ll give the two new queens a week’s grace to prove themselves worthy rulers.

Sorry for the lack of honeybee and beekeeping photos in this post – the June weather hasn’t been good for either. Yesterday, however, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and like many people, my family remembered the bravery of those who fought for our country in the World Wars and any wars, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Here’s a picture that my stepdad Bryan Howard posted of his RAF days on his Facebook yesterday. He’s looking very handsome in 1960 at RAF Bridgenorth.

bryanAnd here is my grandfather Kenneth Spooner, who passed away many years ago. My grandad told me tales of wild rivers, crocodiles and bush babies while on foreign duty during WWII. I hope there are no crocodiles here!

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The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden

Waterfall

Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing

While listening to the restless humming inside the hives, spring seemed a long way off this weekend. Though rumours of snowdrops persist and the daylight is stretching further, I’m impatient to open our hives and see whether our queens, Myrtle, Chamomile and Chili, have survived the winter. As I walked home, I remembered this inspiring TEDTalk by Marla Spivak, a researcher in bee behaviour and biology, and watched it again for a dose of honeybee. Here it is, in case you missed it.

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing 

Our fascination for this wonderful creature, the bee, grows as does our need for them. The bees are disappearing, while there is ‘Worldwide 300% increase in crop production requiring bee pollination’, says Marla. But her talk is hopeful because it reminds us that there is much we can do to help the bee. Get planting bee-friendly flowers for spring: RHS Perfect for Pollinators Plant List.

I hope you enjoyed this video as much as I do each time.

Marla’s talk is on TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing.html
Her bio is available on TED’s website: http://www.ted.com/speakers/marla_spivak.html

For more TEDTalks:

TED.com http://www.ted.com/
Follow TED news on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tednews
Like TED on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TED

Walking in her footsteps

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The summer was too good to last and when rain broke through the gathering clouds last Saturday, the bees were spared their Apiguard treatment for another week.

Bank holiday Monday was a different story: blues skies, warm sunshine and a light breeze. As we were south-west, John and I decided to explore Carshalton, a sleepy suburban area in the borough of Sutton, Greater London.

Carshalton is situated in the valley of the River Wandle, which is the source of the village’s ponds and springs. Pretty parishes, country pubs and cottages populate this peaceful place.

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We planned to walk around a beautiful park spotted on the map, but when I saw the sign ‘Honeywood Museum’ and ‘Ecology Centre’ it was game over.

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Sutton Ecology Centre is a nature conservation area open to the public seven days a week. The grounds offer an educational wildlife trail to explore and learn about native habitats.

The centre is part of a fantastic project to encourage biodiversity gardens. Illustrated information signs were dotted along the trail to show people where to spot wildlife and how to create spaces for native habitats in their own gardens. Dragonflies flew over reeds, hoverflies dangled in the air and butterflies fluttered among trees. It was a pollinator paradise.

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We did eventually discover the park that we set out to find, populated by picnickers and squirrels, and also followed the streams and bridges across the River Wandle.

Later that day my mum sent a text that said: ‘Your ancestor called Sarah was born in Carshalton in 1848 and married William Parsons. Parsons was my grandmother’s maiden name.’

‘Emma’ and ‘Sarah’ are old family names, and as I reflected on the day having walked in the footsteps of my ancestor I wondered if Sarah Parsons had stopped beneath the same shady trees of the churchyard looking out across the ponds.

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Next week: as I’m still on the move – Bees in the Trees!

Rain or shine, the otters like it fine

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With the passing of the winter solstice and the lengthening of days, the bees are too busy preparing for spring for us to visit. Otters, on the other hand, are always happy to entertain their guests.

WWT London Wetland Centre is a popular nature reserve close to the heart of the city and described as a ‘haven for birds, wildlife and people’. Considering how close I live to the reserve it was the ideal place to enjoy a day out with my mum and walk-off recent over-indulgences.

It was a cold, grey Sunday with rain threatening in every cloud, but there was plenty of winter wildlife to see. The courtyard’s main glass observatory offered incredible views of the reedy lake, with ducks, geese and wading birds, against the misty, yet familiar, skyline of the BT Tower, London Eye and the Shard.

After bird watching – my mum’s a bit of a twitcher – and a walk around the lagoons, we went to see the otters being fed.

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The wetland is home to a family of Asian short-clawed otters who live in a specially designed holt where visitors can watch them swim, play and feed. In the wild, Asian otters are threatened by habitat loss and hunting, so this family is part of a breeding and conservation programme. Why not the European otter? The keeper explained that the Asian otter provides better opportunities for observation and entertainment. ‘We know from experience that the Asian short-clawed otter exhibits well, whereas the European ones tend to be more solitary, more shy. If we had six or seven European otters, they would probably be at the back, drinking wine.’

The otters were fun to watch, but I’m not sure that they found us very entertaining. When they realised we didn’t have any food, they soon grew bored of us.

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The sleepy otters yawned and dipped their tails in water until the keeper arrived for the daily feed. They watched him with intent as he entered the holt and chased him across the rocks till he stopped to throw pieces of meat.

008 009What followed can only be described as an otter feeding frenzy. With tiger-like teeth, they easily tore and ripped apart chunks of meat, gulping and swallowing greedily.

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While the otters enjoyed their meal, the keeper apologised to the crowd for making a quick exit. ‘They only tolerate me when I have food, but once they know it’s gone then my ankle might look tasty,’ he explained. ‘Not that I’m scared or anything’ as he cautiously backed away from the pool. As if on cue, the otters paused tearing chunks of meat to watch his hasty retreat behind the trees at the top of the holt. They looked at each other with narrowly slit eyes, then ran across the rocks and up the hill to cut him off. There was a commotion in the bushes, but to everyone’s relief the keeper ran out with both his ankles.

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These otters will eat almost anything, apparently, which made me think that this morehen was braver than the keeper as he waded in their pool.

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The otters were not the only wildlife devising plans. I saw this plotting pigeon sitting on a bridge, until he caught me watching and purposefully looked like a pigeon again.

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The ducks and geese were more relaxed and happily enjoying swimming in the lagoons as the rain began to fall. I’m not sure what type of duck this green-eyed beauty is, but the exotic-looking goose is Egyptian.

016b 016cAt 3pm it was the bird feed with the warden. So we watched as the geese eagerly waddled up and the children threw feed in the water. By this time we were getting cold so it was time to leave, but I look forward to returning in spring to see more wetland wildlife including slow worms, dragonflies and bats.

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I really recommend a visit to WWT London Wetland Centre. Rain, wind or shine – the animals don’t mind. There is lots to see in all seasons, although for me the highlight was the otter feed.

A very Happy New Year everyone and may 2013 bring luck, love, prosperity and good fortune!

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Related links

WWT London Wetland Centre
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)
Nothing hotter than an otter – Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland writes about her visit to WWT London Wetland Centre
ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true – my favourite animal adventure of 2012, being a zoo keeper at London Zoo for the day

Lions and tigers and bees…

The magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger. Sadly, only 3,000 tigers survive in the wild today. Just 3,000. Image courtesy of anekoho / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

‘I’m not a cat person because I’ve never been bitten by a radioactive cat,’ said Ed Byrne, speaking at last night’s ZSL London Zoo ‘Roar with Laughter’ charity comedy gig. The event was hosted at Hammersmith Apollo Theatre in London, with top comedians Phill Jupitus, Andy Parsons, Jon Richardson, Sarah Kendall, Richard Herring, Ed Byrne, Lucy Porter and Greg Burns who all generously donated their time to make us roar with laughter and help ZSL to save the tiger.

The fundraiser for tigers was a lovely night out with Emily and Drew. We enjoyed the comedians and wearing our free tiger masks! I had booked the tickets weeks ago to celebrate the end of a challenging year of beekeeping. The London Zoo comedy was a poignant reminder that honeybees are not the only creatures who are disappearing.

So this week’s post is dedicated to two stripy species in need of SOS! Tigers and bees – sorry, no lions.

Save our stripes

The tiger is my favourite wild cat, so it makes me sad that these beautiful animals are endangered and may soon vanish from our forests. Only 3,000 tigers survive in the wild today and just 300 wild Sumatran tigers remain in Indonesia. Tiger populations are threatened by deforestation as humans push further into tiger territory, which has shrunk to an estimated 7% of its former size. Tigers also face threats from poaching for medicine, magic and souvenirs.

I met this lovely Sumatran tiger at ZSL London Zoo earlier this year. While I would dearly love to see tigers living free in the wild, sometimes the wild is not there.

ZSL is raising money to help save the Sumatran tiger through conservation activities in natural habitats as well as building a new Tiger Territory at London Zoo. The exhibit is due to open in spring 2013 and will cost £3.6 million to build.

If you would like to find out more about ZSL’s field conservation work in key tiger ranges including Russia, Bangladesh and Indonesia, the new Tiger Territory and how to help support the tiger SOS, visit ZSL Sumatran tiger campaign.

‘With just 300 Sumatran tigers left in the wild,’ says ZSL ‘[We want] to take action to ensure this vulnerable sub-species does not face the same fate as the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers, now lost to the world forever.’

Bee lovely and help save the bees

A lovely bee that I saw munching on pink flowers in Regent’s Park this summer.

Loss of habitat and human activities also threaten the honeybee as well as many other bee species and insect pollinators. So I was very pleased to hear that Neal’s Yard Remedies (NYR) has re-launched the Bee Lovely Campaign to raise awareness for the plight of the bee. The campaign urges people to sign the petition to ban the use of powerful pesticides, neonictinoids (neonics), in the UK.

‘Using new technology, neonics penetrate the plant and attack the nervous system of insects that feed off them – posing a deadly threat to all pollinators. Neonics are 7000 times more toxic than DDT, a chemical pesticide the UK government banned in 1984,’ says NYR in their press release for the campaign.

The petition will be taken to Downing Street when it reaches 100,000 signatures. Last year it was signed by over 92,000 people worldwide, so please ‘bee lovely’ and spread the word! Supporters can sign the petition at NYR stores nationwide or online, click here. The petition closing date is 30 November 2012.

Tiger-bee! Orangey and stripy!

The campaign also features a beautiful range of bee-inspired products that blend organic honey with divine orange and mandarin essential oils. The Bee Lovely range includes: Bee Lovely Busy Bee Balm, Bee Lovely Bath & Shower Gel, Bee Lovely Handwash and Bee Lovely Body Lotion. A beautiful book about bees accompanies the Bee Lovely Campaign when you buy a product in store!

To find out more about NYR’s Bee Lovely Campaign, click here. I will be posting NYR’s blogger badge on my blog, so please share it too!

Related links

ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?